How Portuguese Peixinhos da Horta inspired Japanese Tempura (with recipe!)
In a piece published by the BBC back in 2017, journalist David Farley claimed that “Portuguese cuisine may be the most influential cuisine on the planet”. As biased towards Portuguese cuisine as we are, we’re still surprised by such a bold declaration! The background behind this statement is connected with the subject we’re about to explore in today's article: the history of Portuguese peixinhos da horta and the evolution of Japanese tempura (天ぷら).
It was the year of 1543 when the Portuguese reached Japan, being the first Europeans to make it as far East. After arriving on the island of Tanegashima, the Portuguese influence quickly spread across the Japanese territory, and translated into the introduction of novelty items like wool, silk and cotton textiles, but also cultural aspects such as food and religion.
Even though in 1543 three Portuguese merchants ended up in Tanegashima by chance, in 1548 the first planned European expedition returned to Japanese lands, now with a studied action plan. Jesuit priest Francis Xavier, who was until then in Portuguese dominated Goa in India, was sent to Japan to spread Christianity. If you are curious to learn more about the influence of Jesuit missionaries in Japan, we recommend watching the movie “Silence” by Martin Scorsese.
In parallel, numerous Portuguese traders were taken to Japan, entering via the city of Nagasaki to establish commercial connections, and so Western habits kept spreading across Japan. After an initial boom that resulted in a lot of Japan’s inhabitants adopting Christianity, the religion was eventually banned by the Japanese government in 1641. As such, the Portuguese didn’t last on site for even a complete century, but their influence in Japan persisted and kept mutating for years to come.
Even though tempura is internationally recognized as a typical Japanese dish, its origins date back to the arrival of the Portuguese in Japan in the 16th century. When the Portuguese introduced catholicism in Japan, certain days of fasting were observed by the followers of this new faith. Tempora is the Latin term that refers to these fasting periods, and which eventually evolved into the name tempura. For the catholic church fasting is not taken as literally as for instance amongst Muslims. It’s not about avoiding food and beverages all together, it is about the prohibition of eating meat on observed days. One of the ways of making vegetables more filling is to dip them in batter and deep-fry them, and so the tempura we know today as a cooking technique and dish became a go-to dish on abstinence days.
In Portugal, battering and deep-frying was usually something done with green runner beans, which is a dish called peixinhos da horta. One of the very few traditional vegetarian Portuguese dishes actually translates into “little fishes from the vegetable garden” because of their aesthetic similarity with deep-fried tiny fish. With the Portuguese arrival to Japan, it is very easy to trace a link between peixinhos da horta and tempura, but we could dip deeper and find more complex multicultural connections. As the Portuguese had arrived in India already a few years before making it to Japan, some lines of thought have also studied the possibility of peixinhos da horta being Portugal’s take on Indian pakoras, wh